Mayor Sly James got pretty darn specific in responding Tuesday to concerns about developer/philanthropist Shirley Helzberg’s request for $5 million in tax breaks to reuse a building she owns at 1640 Baltimore Ave.
The deal would put the BNIM architecture firm in the now-empty structure in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District.
Some opponents argue that Helzberg is a well-connected civic leader trying to throw her weight around at City Hall.
“Who builds things: rich people or poor people?” James said at one point.
He noted that Helzberg has redeveloped property and contributed funding to help propel other downtown projects forward in the past, especially near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Another concern is that racial politics is playing a role in this dispute.
Activist Clinton Adams, a constant thorn in James’ side, has signed the petition aimed at getting a referendum on the ballot to put the tax break deal to a public vote in 2016. Adams has long been involved in roiling the waters when it comes to Kansas City Public Schools — and the district’s officials and some school parents have emerged as prime critics of the Helzberg project.
James bluntly said Tuesday that “to portray this (deal) as giving money to some rich white woman I thought was offensive.”
I asked the mayor whether he would be influenced at all on whether to put the referendum question on the ballot if a lot of signatures came from the East Side and its predominately black population.
His answer: “I’m not going to make decisions based on race.”
A few seconds later he added, “It’s a long-term losing game.”
Still, as of Wednesday, we don’t know whether the referendum leaders have gathered enough signatures to put the issue to a public vote.
And if the signatures are there, James said the Helzberg TIF project is “dead.”